Why There Can Never Be Another Carson - Even Johnny

In a surprise announcement today, Johnny Carson, the late-night talk show host due to retire May 22, says he has changed his mind and will sign on with NBC for another 5-10 years.

JUST kidding. Or as Carson sidekick Ed McMahon might aver: "You are incorrect, sir."

Like the post-Carson TV world that is rewriting the rule books to attract more viewers, this has been a postmodern media ploy to hook you into reading further. That means drawing your attention to the artifice of the medium, teasing old assumptions about what's going to happen as you proceed. With "thrill cams," live out-of-studio visits, and on-air telephone calls, 1990s late-night television is full of eye-grabbing gimmicks.

The phrase "there will never be another Johnny Carson" is as much a statement about changing TV styles and audience expectations as it is about the broad appeal of a uniquely talented showman. With technology soon able to give us hundreds of video options in our homes, America is not likely to embrace a single TV celebrity in the same way ever again.

"The weakening of mass culture continues," says Paul Jerome Croce, a professor of history from Stetson University in Deland, Fla. He points to the increase in the number of TV channels and to telephone numbers that allow people to tap into subcultures from Christian evangelicals to rock music. Mr. Croce says it is now possible for a person to live his entire life within one narrowly focused cultural milieu.

"From magazines to theme parks to movies, whole industries are popping up to divert us away from a single, unified culture," he says.

When Carson first took over "The Tonight Show" in 1962, there were only three channels to choose from - four or five in some markets. Today several cities have upwards of 100, and some experts say 150 will soon be commonplace. Such diversity creates pressure on producers to cook up new ways of attracting and holding viewers.

"It is now second nature to zap a show with remote control when it starts to bore us," notes Brian Stonehill, author of a forthcoming book on visual literacy entitled, "What to Watch For." To keep viewers from doing that, producers try to stay a jump ahead by simulating the channel-changing themselves on many shows.

Besides more frequent camera cuts - from outside studio shots to zooms and bizarre angles of the audience and band - more recent, late-night talk shows do things Carson never dreamed of: visit Dwight Gooden "live" at Yankee Stadium to watch him throw baseballs directly at the camera lens (NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman"); read on-screen, superimposed graphic text of jokes or focus on the in-studio "applause" sign ("The Dennis Miller Show"); lick, jostle, or otherwise play with the camera lens ("T he Arsenio Hall Show").

Such attention-calling to the medium signals a shift away from the classical, pure style nurtured by Carson, says Stonehill. "Carson's art was to conceal his art," he says. "The others are holding up a mirror to the mirror."

As media watchers count down the episodes until Carson's departure May 22, descriptions of his appeal abound but explanations do not: "A naughty-fraternity-boy quality that he never outgrows," commented Dick Cavett; "The ideal cocktail party host [who] embarrasses nobody," writes Time magazine; "He never tries to top his guest," says Calvin Trillin in Life.

With whatever combination of wit, charm, and timing, honed over three decades of mugging with sidekick McMahon, bandleader Doc Severinsen, and in-studio audiences of 500, Carson developed an intimacy with Americans some say was as much because of program time as talent.

"People tuned in Carson when they were most tired or no longer wanted to face problems of their daily lives," notes Renee Hobson, a Harvard lecturer on the cultural influence of TV. "The only criterion was being non-threatening and sufficiently distracting...."

The failures of other late-nighters to do just that - Joey Bishop, Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak among them - suggests the mold was broken after Carson.

The innovations of Letterman, Miller, Arsenio, and those to come by successor Jay Leno and Chevy Chase on Fox, suggest Carson has managed to keep his impeccable sense of timing: getting out before his own style reverts to moldiness.

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